Sunday, January 15, 2012

My 2011 Harvest

My daughter was born in the late spring of 2011. The summer and fall went by in the milky haze a newborn brings to a home. I even took a long vacation away from Illinois at the peak of summer, with nary a moment's anxiety about my garden. It was a neglected mess anyway, what did 2 weeks without water matter? We did spend long lazy days out in the garden, although I will admit that many a tomato went unpicked. It was a bad year for tomatoes anyway -- or at least that's what I told myself. I fear the tsunami of volunteers I will face this summer from all the tomatoes I let "compost" in the beds.

The garlic and shallots went very well. I just finished the last of the garlic -- an Italian Late variety -- this week. I would have more but I shared a whole braid with a friend in a fit of generosity late in the summer. I console myself with knowing that her partner is a serious cook and I am sure she put the gift to good use. The shallots were French grays. They lived up to their reputation as incredibly delicious, though they are a pain in the neck to peel and certainly not good keepers. I saved the best of the bulbs to replant in the late fall and they were duly interred in October. With the weather we had in December, I probably could have procrastinated with no ill effect!

Despite my general inertia on sowing seeds this past summer, the perennial edibles seemed to thrive on neglect. All of them, that is, except for the asparagus. Those poor root crowns clearly resented my utter lack of composting and mulching and only sent forth a few spindly stems. But the strawberries, blueberries and grapes came forth in multitudes. I knew I wasn't canning or cooking much this summer, so we were eating whatever ripened, as it ripened. It was a good lesson in being in the garden moment, rather than always wringing my hands about how I am going to preserve the bounty.

Now that the snow has finally fallen, I can cozy up in a chair, pull out the seed catalogs and plan for 2012. 2011 will remain a gap on this blog -- and there are certainly gaping spaces on my pantry shelves and in my freezer: no pickles this year, no home-canned spiced apples, no jams. Worst of all for me and my basil-loving son, there is no pesto frozen for use on these gloomy January days. But our 2011 was a good and fruitful one, and this sweet addition to my family was worth a fallow gardening year. Now I have one more developing pair of hands to corral into yard chores!

Monday, November 1, 2010

Old Season, New Life

Snow is in the forecast for Friday, and after a six-week hiatus from gardening and writing, I face today the mountain of chores long overdue for my ragged, late-fall garden. I spent virtually the entire autumn in the low-energy state of early pregnancy -- napping, cooking just enough for family needs and generally guarding against any extra expenditure of effort. Now, at four months along, my energy is back, together with a mountain of gardener's guilt: all the tomatoes and green beans unpicked! The pounds of grapes left to the birds! The basil frost-bitten and unworthy of a few last batches of pesto!

And how lucky, indeed, that this life of gardening, cooking and preservation is more hobby than necessity. I shudder to imagine how many indigenous and settler women living in this area two hundred and fifty years ago had to shoulder weeks of food-gathering in a state of fatigue and discomfort, lest their families be left hungry in the snowy season. My family will have a few less pesto dinners and jars of grape jam over the winter, but overall will remain generally unaffected by my period of retreat from daily chores. The garden looks visibly worse for the wear, but it is nothing that a few afternoons of elbow grease can't fix.

Among the mess of overgrown plants and weeds, I found fall crops thriving from neglect -- Swiss chard, mustard and kale are all leafing out beautifully -- a few leaves of ruby red chard are pictured above. The radishes -- daikon and black Spanish -- are big and juicy, ready to be pulled and stored for winter.

I am thinking hard about next year's garden -- the 2011 seed catalogs haven't even hit the mailbox, but the planning needs to start now. The birth of my next child coincides with the last frost date -- a spring garden, beyond some lettuce and radishes, seems out of reach. The early summer, too, will probably be a wash, given all the energy a new baby requires. I have gathered several shallot and garlic varieties to plant this week. Normally, I am loathe to dedicate too much precious garden space to these crops -- they hog the beds at a time of high use -- spring and early summer. But next year they can grow undisturbed as my family expands.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The sweet smell of autumn

Autumn is right around the corner, and -- despite the 90 degree day that we are facing tomorrow --there is no more insistent a reminder of this turn of seasons than the scent of concord grapes. The arbor hangs thick with ripening fruit right by the door of the garage. I arrive home every evening to the heady scent of sun-baked grapes. The birds are getting a lot this year, and I am not sure I have it in me to make grape jam this season (especially since we never finished the jars from last year!). But the vines are worth it just for this sensory luxury of inhaling the scent of their fruit.

Concords can startle people with their scent, as for many their sheer grapey-ness conjures memories of Welch's juice and PBJ sandwiches and hard candies. There is no subtlety to the perfume of the concord -- it smacks you in the nose with its fruitiness. But I love the rich aromas that hit me as soon as I step out of the garage -- the ripening concords are a gentle salve to the wounds of a hard work day. We often find our son sitting below the small arbor, sniffing ardently as he maneuvers his trucks.

I arrived home today with a sense of relief -- my month of burdensome work hours is over and I can return to the normal pace of life. Leaving for the hospital before dawn, I have missed the quiet mornings in the garden with my son. The garden looks ragged and deflated, a horticultural reflection of my inner self right now. Fortunately both I and the garden will soon be renewed by late mornings and early afternoons spent outside, enjoying the fall weather.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

A Good and Sweet Year

Tonight begins the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashanah. Apples and honey are the traditional foods, symbolizing a sweet new year. Our family is not observant -- actually not religious in the slightest! --but I try to celebrate the traditions of my mother-in-law and her family with my young son. He is an easy mark on Rosh Hashanah -- what 3 year old wouldn't want to dip apples into honey as a snack? As a gardener, I also gravitate to a new year celebration tied to the autumn seems more in keeping with nature's cycles than the usual January gloom of the secular celebration.

Round challah bread is traditionally served on Rosh Hashanah as well, symbolizing the cycle of the year. I am making this recipe from Martha Stewart tonight-- it will get a second rise in the refrigerator while we sleep and tomorrow will it bake up into a gorgeously round loaf. The recipe gives a delicious twist on the traditional challah by incorporating apples directly into the dough. The resulting bread is eggy and rich, but not cloying. It is a comforting way to start this new year...and may these coming months as good and sweet as the bread.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The second coming of the nasturtiums

July was a cruel month to my nasturtiums and, by the end of the month, they had withered away to straggly, yellowing stems. I ripped the nasturtiums out of the corner of my yard, as the dying foliage looked particularly horrible against the lush August green of the rest of the garden. As I tore out the plants, I noticed little rootlets hanging off the main stems. I decided to replant these rooting stems and see what would come of it.

A month later, I have a thriving little nasturtium plant. It isn't the length of my old plant, but this salvaged little chunk of rooting stem has impressed me with its vigor. What otherwise would have gone into the compost pile has surprised me with a second life.

I had grand plans when this project started to pickle the seed pods as a homemade version of capers. No seeds appeared on the first growth of the plant -- I think it withered in the heat before it could think about reproducing. Maybe this second chance will offer some seeds. I know what to look for, thanks to an educational post from Mr. Brown Thumb. I fear there may be no homemade capers in my future....if there are, I will post them next month in the final installment of this project.

“I’m growing Nasturtium ‘Spitfire’ for the GROW project. Thanks, toRenee’s Garden for the seeds.”

Friday, September 3, 2010

Passiflora incarnata alba

The most anticipated flower in my garden bloomed today -- passiflora incarnata alba, the passion flower. I started these seeds early in the winter and have been nursing this plant along ever since, first under a cloche and then against the onslaught of the slugs.

All of my careful ministrations were worth it when when I returned from a long day of work this evening to find two blossoms quivering in the wind. The scent is tropical and the flowers look other-worldly. Neighbors gathered around for examination and discussion, as the vine is climbing my front fence. I have a feeling these passion flowers may be "shoplifted" off the vine, much like the moon flowers that grow nearby. Every morning, I notice a blossom or two has been plucked off. Such is the fate of showy flowers grown along a busy sidewalk.

I imagine a a teenage girl took one of these giant moon flowers, to tuck behind her ear, like a flamenco dancer. The petals look like rumpled white silk. I personally would pick the passion flower, although the numerous ants scurrying on the underside of the flowers would be an unwelcome surprise in the hair.

Of course, I should just rest on my laurels and enjoy the flowers, but now I am calculating the days until the first frost and wondering whether the vine will set fruit. Given the autumn chill and winds right now, it is hard to imagine I will have any passion fruit cocktails in my future. But a long Indian summer may be right around the corner, so who knows? And if not this year, perhaps next - the woman who sent me the seed says it is hardy to zone 5 if mulched carefully.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Time warp

No matter how carefully I tend my home life of urban farming and slow cooking, there are times when my professional duties overwhelm any homesteading reveries. The past 10 days have been a harsh reminder that the skills that pay my bills have less to do with my green thumb, and more to do with my medical training. I am tending patients right now, not plants. I leave early in the morning and come home in the evening, exhausted. As I stumble through my garden on the way to my house and bed, I am lucky if I remember to pick the ripe tomatoes off the plants. Forget about cooking with them! They are getting thrown in the freezer, for a big batch of sauce once my workload eases in a few weeks.

I will admit that given the small size of my garden, I sometimes micromanage every single pot and bed. I take great pleasure in this daily intimacy, watching every seedling emerge, charting the slow growth of an individual fig, plucking each withering leaf off the tomato plant. This time of intense work has forced me to step back and let my garden grow on its own, untended. Despite negligent watering, my fall container lettuce ('pot and patio blend' from Territorial) is up and thriving.

The red kuri squash is large and deepening in color. The last I checked, they were yellow and fist-sized, with the blossom still attached!

My pole beans are finally nearing harvest, at least two weeks later than last year. Fortunately my bean plants grow right by my back door, so I will remember to grab a bowl of beans before I head in to crash on the couch.

The heavy work load has made me watch my garden in time warp. Rather than the slow, minuscule daily changes, I am now only able to observe week by week. My garden feels more productive -- is it because we are now in the heady days of early September or because a watched horticultural pot never boils?